[Letter of John James Taylor to Francis William Newman.]
The Limes, Rosslyn, Hampstead
January 16th, 1869
I ought to have acknowledged before now your kind and very welcome letter, received some weeks ago. I have also to thank you for your very instructive paper on Alcoholic Drinks. That and some other writings of similar tendency which I have lately read, have, I must confess, begun to make a very strong impression on me. I think some nonsense has been written, and some fanaticism displayed, in connection with the Teetotal movement; but it seems to me impossible to deny, that the question is now assuming a very formidable importance—especially with the recent changes in the constitution of the suffrage—and that the terrible social mischiefs of which it treats must be met at once with some measure of strong and decisive counteraction. Whether the Permissive Bill in its actual form is the best and most practical measure is more than I can say; but I regard its principle, under the circumstances, as perfectly defensible. The case is exceptional, and it demands an exceptional cure. I do not regard the moderate use of the stimulus furnished by fermented liquors as either pernicious or morally wrong. The history of civilization and the universal language of poetry seem to prove the reverse. But the thing has now become in its abuse a positive curse to society—a moral pestilence which sweeps down whole multitudes of men and women and even children who have not moral vitality to resist the attack, and whom, if we are not absolutely bound to protect against their own weakness, we ought at least to guard from gratuitously multiplied and artificially stimulating temptation. When such an epidemic seizes human society, I observe, in the ordinary course of human affairs, nothing can resist it but some intense reaction, pushed by the very necessity of its existence into some extravagance, and headed by leaders whose moral earnestness almost takes the form of monomania, and in whom the sense of an awful evil to be overcome, masters for the time every other consideration. I can often discern the weakness, and the limited application of some of the arguments put forth by such men; but they are strong from the intensity of moral purpose which animates them, and from their intimate coalescence with the stream of conservative reaction of which they help to increase the volume and the force. But I also perceive, that in these vast tidal waves of popular influence, urged on by the profound moral sense surging up from the popular heart—the greatest evils of society have been constantly swept away. Here, if anywhere, I am compelled to recognize the working of the spirit of God. The conscience is mightier and more divine than scientific logic. I gratefully acknowledge the service of science and philosophy to restrain and guide the movement when once set a going. But they are powerless to originate it. The great thing is to get the sluggish will of man to act at all—and mainly in the right direction.—All this may serve to indicate my position in this question; in which I never before too the interest which I now do. I hope this question in some form or other will soon come before our Legislature, with other social questions, and take the place of the old party conflicts which have had their day and are gone. We have now a Government which, whatever may prove its ultimate working power, contains several men of earnest moral pur-pose and sincere religious feeling; and it is surely a great gain to society to have politics in some degree blended at length with the higher principles of our nature, and raised above the condition of a mere selfish craft.
I suppose that Mr. Gladstone, with such a majority as he has at his back, will be tolerably sure of carrying his general proposition for the disestablishment and disendowment of the Irish Church. His difficulties will begin—and the difficulties inherent in the whole measure will shew themselves—in the manipulation of practical details. I quite expect that some very interesting and instructive discussions will arise in this stage of the proceedings on some points which have almost been in abeyance since the first age of the Reformation—one in particular—what are the legitimate limits of State action in ecclesiastical Organizations. A State has of course no right to interfere with belief or worship; but Churches have also a side towards the present world, where they come into contact with education, morals, learning, and scientific culture—and in this direction, where the interests of the present world are profoundly affected, they have no right to plead conscience for the perpetuation of absurdity, intolerance, and the obstruction of scientific progress. Bred and born a Nonconformist, and taught from my earliest years to look on all connexion of Church and State as an abomination—I have been forced by the teaching of events to modify views which I once entertained. I observe that all freedom of thought in our Established Church would have been crushed but for the intervention of the lay element in our Civil Courts; and the case is not much better among the Dissenters, where the ecclesiastical and theological element is strong. It is rather startling to find the Highest Churchmen and most daring Ritualists now calling out most loudly for the severance of Church and State. The tone of the Catholic prelates is becoming arrogant, and shewing clearly what they aim at and would take. If our narrow Protestantism would have allowed Mr. Pitt's known desire to have effect, more than half a century ago, to appropriate a good part of the revenues of the Irish Church for the support of the Catholic Priesthood, and to put Anglicanism, Roman-Catholicism and Presbyterianism on an equal footing in Ireland, it would probably have saved much present trouble, and put us on the track of a more gradual and peaceful development of a better state of religious feeling and opinion. But we are always too late; and that is now impossible.